The Big Interview: Tim Bird

By Phil Mellows

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Cheshire cat pubs Restaurant group Campaign for real ale Public house Cask ale

Tim Bird: set up on his own after suddenly thinking “why am I doing this for a company? I needed to break free”
Tim Bird: set up on his own after suddenly thinking “why am I doing this for a company? I needed to break free”
Finally free of the corporate shackles and running his own pubs, Tim Bird, one of the pub industry’s foremost operations people, has been marshalling the skills and experience accumulated over decades to tackle one of the trade’s knottiest problems. Dog policy.

It’s a question every publican has to face. Do you let dogs in? Where do you allow them to go? What do you let them do? But Bird has taken dog policy to a new level.

At the Bull’s Head it takes physical form in the ‘snug’, a flagged area inside the front door with an open fire. Designed for dogs.

“The most dogs we’ve had in here in a week is 27, including one that came in on its own.” Bird, as you can tell, evaluates his dog policy. “Sometimes they bring a group of 20 people with them! If it smells you have to ask it to leave. But it’s the same with a smelly customer,” he shrugs.

Dog policy is just one of the things Bird and Mary McLaughlin, his wife, and partner in Cheshire Cat Pubs & Bars, enjoy debating. He’s in his element nagging at such details, the details on which a customer’s experience turns and a pub succeeds.

The Bull’s Head, a Punch leasehold in the sprawling Cheshire village of Mobberley, is certainly succeeding. “It does on a Monday what it used to do in a month,” he says. “And where it used to employ two people, it now employs 30.”

And since May this year he’s repeated the trick at the Cholmondeley Arms, just over the border into Shropshire. Leased from Lord Cholmondeley, trade has doubled there since Bird made use of the architecture of the former schoolhouse to create a pub you can’t help but go ‘wow’ at.

It was all done, too, to the approval of regulars as diverse as TV chef Clarissa Dickson-Wright and occasional footballer Michael Owen. It says something about the power of pubs if you can get those two enjoying the same place.

The big question is, though, why hasn’t Bird done this before? “Why did I spend all those years working for companies? I was enjoying myself. I was on a rollercoaster and couldn’t get off. I was getting a buzz from turning businesses around. I was probably too loyal. Although when you’ve got an equity stake of 3%, as I had at Eldridge Pope, it is your own company to an extent.”

Going it alone

After nine years with Grand Met’s Berni Inns, Bird worked for the pub estates of regional brewers Devenish and Greenalls before joining legendary pub entrepreneur Michael Cannon to turn round Morrell’s of Oxford.

From there he followed the Que Pasa brand to Eldridge Pope where he stayed until the company was sold to Marston’s.
“I took a break, got bored and started to wonder what my perfect pub would be,” he recalls.

He thought Dorset would be a good place for a perfect pub and bought the Red Lion in Weymouth, the former Devenish brewery tap which McLaughlin had looked after as area manager in the early 1990s. It’s now a Cheshire Cat outlet, run by her brother Brian.

Before that, though, he’d got a call from another famous industry name, Tony Hughes, asking him to join The Restaurant Group, where Hughes is a non-executive director. There he set about expanding the Brunning & Price gastropub brand and converting the failing Blubecker’s restaurant chain into proper pubs.

As usual, Bird displayed his golden touch — but this time he didn’t feel the same way about the company he was doing it for. “I loved Brunning & Price but at the Restaurant Group I was like the jigsaw piece that doesn’t fit no matter which way you turn it. It didn’t make me happy.

“In a way it was like a finishing school for me. I felt very alone there. In that situation you have to make your mind up about things and have the courage of your convictions.

“Then I suddenly thought, why am I doing this for a company? I needed to break free. So I said to Mary, let’s do something together. She’d just finished a project with Vapiano restaurants, we’d seen the pub at Mobberley and we became the Cheshire Cat.

"We’re both ex-bosses and we’ve had to learn to work together. She does the food and I do the beer. We’re like an old-fashioned pub couple!”

McLaughlin also brings a woman’s view to the business — most essential when you’re designing a unisex toilet, another unusual feature at the Bull’s Head.


Bird has broken free from convention, too, on the drinks side. The Cholmondeley has 50 gins on its bristling back-bar and the only cask ales he sells are from local microbrewers, including exclusive house ales produced by Weetwood Brewery.

It’s got the Bull’s Head into the Good Beer Guide in its first year and it’s got customers “from 18 to 88” drinking the ale, bumping up the wet contribution to 45% in what Bird himself expected to be a much more food-led business.

He’s happy to quote a customer who told him his pubs “puzzle me with choice”. That’s definitely not in the pub marketing handbook.

“You’re imprisoned by a marketing department. I’d be happy if marketing people left this business alone,” he says, shaking off another corporate shackle while you watch.

“They’re not at the sharp end talking to customers. When someone comes in and says ‘I don’t know what to have’ you give them a taster so they can make their mind up.

“They were brave decisions, about the beer and the dogs and the unisex toilet. Pioneers are the people who get arrows in their back, generally, but you get a feeling that it will work, because it differentiates you.

“You’ve got to stick to your guns, that’s what I’ve learned. You can’t waver or over time I’d dismantle everything we’ve done here.
“It’s so refreshing when you don’t have to rely on anyone,” he adds. “It’s hard sleeping at night, though, when it’s all down to you.”

But Bird and McLaughlin are now ready to expand and looking for other pubs in Cheshire. So far they’ve been using their own money, and haven’t taken anything out of the business in two years.

“The next stage is taking it to five pubs and that will be a crossroads for us,” says Bird. “Should we find an investor? Venture capitalists? Banks? We don’t have to grow but a venture capitalist will drive us further.

“I tell people I’m in the pub-restoration business,” he concludes. I want to build pubs that are still here in 50 years and still doing it. There aren’t enough of those about.”

My kind of pub
B&P pubs, like the Fox nr Newport, Shropshire, have impressed Bird

“I imagine a freezing cold day and a Ready Brek glow around the pub. There’s chatter, laughter, people tucked into corners and I’m ordering a pint of ale and stroking somebody’s dog.

“But I couldn’t pick one pub that’s inspired me. There are 2,000 of them.

“Brunning & Price influenced me before I worked for it. They have the earthiness of a pub, the real ale is bang on, there’s good home cooking and the people behind the bar are the top.

"They have a passion for what they’re selling and the conversation just seems to happen with them.”
Key dates

1983​ On leaving school Tim Bird gets a job with Grand Met’s Berni Inns chain, working in, then managing, various branches

1989​ Promoted to area manager responsible for 12 Bernis in the north

1990​ Area manager for 17 Chef & Brewer/Berni Hotels nationwide

1992​ Becomes operations manager for Dorset-based brewer Devenish, later taken over by Greenalls

1995​ Operations manager for 78 Greenalls theme bars in the north

1997​ Takes over as director of Greenalls’ pubs division, in charge of 450 pubs across the country

2000​ Joins Michael Cannon at Morrells of Oxford as operations director responsible for managed houses and Que Pasa chain

2004​ Moves to Eldridge Pope with Que Pasa as board director for managed pubs

2008​ Joins The Restaurant Group as managing director for freehouses and pub-restaurants

2009​ Buys the Red Lion, Weymouth, with wife Mary McLaughlin

2010​ Leaves Restaurant Group to launch Cheshire Cat Pubs & Bars

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